The 4th of July: Adams, Jefferson and the Signers, the Heros of Our Infancy and Awaiting the Heros of Our Future

For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

For that passing moment a few days ago America had a hero – Tim Howard – the keeper (for the non-soccer fans – the goalie) played an incredible game making stopping shot after shot to keep us in the game; after all, we didn’t really belong with the “big guys,” for Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands soccer is a religion, actually way beyond a religion. I was in Germany in 2006 for the World Cup – when Germany was playing the nation of Germany came to a halt – huge TV screens in the streets – work stopped – every German was glued to a screen for the two hours of each and every game.

While we are not as rabid fans as the rest of the world over 15 million American viewers were glued to TV screens Tuesday afternoon for the US-Belgium game.

Heroism is transitory – and usually a heroic moment in a sporting event or pinning a medal on a soldier on the White House lawn.

238 years ago the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were heroes – they all knew if the fledgling thirteen colonies failed to extract themselves from the rule of the most powerful nation in the world they would be hung as traitors.

A third of the signers owned slaves, eight were born outside the current boundaries of the nation, yes, they were immigrants, and they were all men of means and education who lived secure lives.

Nine died in the war. Twelve had their houses ransacked and burned. Others died in poverty, and two, Adams and Jefferson became presidents.

Jefferson was dissatisfied with his Declaration, as was Adams. Jefferson felt that Congress had rewritten so much of it that it was ruined; to the end of his long life he would force visitors to read his original drafts, in which he fixed the slave trade and slavery itself on George III, ignoring the role of Southern slave-owners and Northern slave traders.

Although the issue of slavery was widely debated — both the chattel slavery of Africans in America and the civil slavery, indentured servitude, that fired patriot rhetoric — it is conspicuously absent from the final version of the Declaration. Yet in his draft, Jefferson railed against King George III for creating and sustaining the slave trade, describing it as “a cruel war against human nature.”

“Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” Decades later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and Northern delegates who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Jefferson’s original passage on slavery appears below.”

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

The British were promising freedom if slaves joined the ranks of the British army.

One can wonder if slavery would have been abolished decades earlier without a civil war if the language had been retained, then again, perhaps the Declaration would not have been approved by the Continental Congress. The gridlock of June, 1776 was resolved while the gridlock of the 2014 Congress seems never-ending.

John Adams, our second president and a bitter enemy of Jefferson, remembers the original draft,

I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress.

and explains why Jefferson was chosen to be the drafter, and not Adams,

“Reason first — You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second — I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third — You can write ten times better than I can.”

After Jefferson left the presidency and retired to Monticello Adams and Jefferson began a correspondence – between 1812 and their deaths, hours apart on the 4th of July, 1826, they exchanged over a hundred letters, deep philosophical expositions, defending themselves and musing on the nature of government.

Jefferson’s tombstone bears the simple inscription,

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

The Hobby-Lobby Supreme Court decision would have been anathema to Jefferson, who viewed Christianity as a set of moral values, and did not worship Jesus as the son of God, Jefferson created his own version of the bible,

… cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels which contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages indicating Jesus was divine.

Adams and Jefferson and the signers were pragmatists, knowing that compromise was necessary for the good of the nation.

On one hand the nation appears to be recovering from the economic collapse of 2008, the stock market has hit all-times highs, (great for the pension fund – it will reduce the size of the city contribution), unemployment rates continue to fall, job creation continues, and, on the flip side wages are stagnant and the job creation is at the lower end of the spectrum.

Jefferson and Adams would have abhorred the challenges to free public education and the inexcusable introduction of government favoritism of religion. For the founders religion was a code of ethics, Jesus, to Jefferson was a philosopher not a miracle worker.

As the number of inter-racial marriages continue to increase, as the graduating classes at the public universities continue to include more and kids from immigrant families or who are immigrants themselves, as the nation tips more and more toward a meritocracy, hopefully the next set of Adams and Jeffersons will emerge.

Let the fireworks be fireworks of knowledge.


4 responses to “The 4th of July: Adams, Jefferson and the Signers, the Heros of Our Infancy and Awaiting the Heros of Our Future

  1. I always knew that Peter Goodman was an outstanding union leader: serving the teachers of Brooklyn’s School District 22 effectively and eloquently. What I did not realize until I read this brilliant article on the birth of our nation is that he also a first rate historian: one who deserves a chair at a major university. In retrieving the original text of Jefferson’s celebrated Declaration of Independence, he restores this great but flawed Founding Father, after much revisionist assault, to his rightful place in our pantheon. Clearly, in his analysis of the Jefferson-Adams schism and late-life reconciliation, Goodman weaves a compelling narrative of salient facts, incisive commentary, and colorful, indeed elegant prose. If contemporary historians followed that style of presentation, we would regain a lost generation of students who love rather than hate history.


  2. Yes, great post. Many ties to what is happening today. The longterm ramifications of slavery and what is happening to the lower and middle classes, the service class in the eyes of Bloomberg and his ilk; city government reduced to the delivery of services, granted for all, but ultimately in service of the elite.


  3. A brief review of the very recent history of the Uuuuuuunited States:
    99%ers vs Radioactive Sludge

    This is for all Zephyr Teachout fans!


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